Before I arrived, I heard Belgrade described as a cross between Paris, Buenos Aires, and India: Paris because of the architecture and small retail; Buenos Aires because of the graffiti and gritty atmosphere; and India because, well, parts smell bad.
Since I haven’t been to Buenos Aires or India, I’d say it’s more like Paris meets Queens. The people-watching is excellent, and reminiscent of both cities. You’ll see “sponsor girls” in leather skirts and fur-lined jackets. Doughy men in tracksuits walking out of casinos. Teenagers with blue hair texting while getting pastries from the bakery.
The graffiti ranges from political to funny to downright juvenile. You’ll find bakeries, private shops and convenience stores on every corner. Belgrade has the added benefit of big farmer’s markets throughout the city. I haven’t quite experienced the smell part yet, but the wood-burning fireplaces and coal stoves—sulfuric coal, from what I hear—will make their presence known soon.
The street attitude here is similar to New York. I like to say that New Yorkers are the nicest people you’ll never meet. Anonymity is peaceful, and people will find that peace in a jammed subway car, walking down the street with two thousand other people, or buying groceries in relative silence. Belgrade is similar.
While they may not acknowledge strangers, people in both cities will help you if you need it. Or if they think you need it. When my in-laws were visiting Manhattan, strangers on the subway warned them about keeping bags unzipped. Last week, an elderly man informed me that I should not stand so close to the curb because streetcars might jump off the tracks. At least, that’s what he seemed to be saying. He only spoke Serbian but used a lot of hand signs. When I told him “ne govorim Serbski,” he just laughed, clapped me on the shoulder, then got serious and motioned to the streetcars again. For a second, I thought my mother had mastered the psychic art of astral projection.
Before you think RHOB is actually the Belgrade Tourism Board, it’s not perfect. I miss the ethnic diversity of cities back home. There’s a gray cast to the buildings and air thanks to diesel and heat sources mentioned above. Buildings destroyed in the NATO attack are still standing, though it’s unclear if it’s because they are meant to stand as a memorial or prevented from being destroyed because of red tape. And if you’re an environmentalist, there’s long list of things to improve upon. But as far as first impressions go, Belgrade offers a good one.